There Will Always Be a "War on Women"

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 2 2013 3:01 PM

There Will Always Be a "War on Women"

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Nancy Pelosi didn't immediately denounce Bob Filner. That makes her a general in the "real" war on women.

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

This blog has spent far too much time on the GOP's strange quest to convince everyone that the only threat to women from politicians comes from individual sex scandals. Time to spend some more! Our new artifact is a "rare joint memo" from all of the Republican Party committee communications directors. Three of the five are female, and one of them, Gail Gitcho, worked for a Romney campaign that Republicans believe was unfairly tied to the dopiest members of the party's pro-life wing. It's trolling in its purest form, hitting Democrats for campaigning with Bill Clinton ("a man whose record with women is notorious"), for not denouncing Anthony Weiner's spokeswoman Barbara Morgan when she called a departed intern "the same term" Rush Limbaugh used to attack Sandra Fluke, and so on.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

It's bonkers. Quick: What's the difference between Barbara Morgan, a flack who left Chris Christie's office to work for Anthony Weiner, and Rush Limbaugh, the most influential conservative radio host in modern history? The GOP cites her as an example of "how Democrats really talk about women when they think no one will find out," as if someone who worked for Christie until this spring is a key Democrat. The "war on actual women" stuff has been covered here, because I find it revealing and strange, and it's gotten some pickup in D.C. media, but there's no evidence of it hitting candidates at home.

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But about D.C. media. The memo was initially previewed by Mike Allen in Playbook, which was sort of the point of it—get the press corps buzzing. The memo was then written up for an a.m. story titled "GOP slams Dem 'hypocrisy' on women." This is written in a familar, churning style—press release exists, it contains words—but contains notes of subtle comedy. "The memo calls out President Barack Obama, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton, among others, for declining to speak out against Weiner and Filner’s behavior, or speak up on behalf of the women who have been affected," reports Rebecca Elliott. Later she points out that "Pelosi did condemn both Filner and Weiner late last week."

The memo sort of pre-emptively answers that.

When Nancy Pelosi was asked about her former colleague Mayor Filner, she didn’t jump to the defense of the women involved. Instead, she was indignant that she was asked. “Don’t identify him as my former colleague,” she snapped. She’s yet to call for her fellow Californian’s resignation.

True, she hasn't, but that quote isn't a defense of Filner. On July 18, at a reporter roundtable, Pelosi was talking about an economic initiative when a reporter mentioned Filner. Jennifer Bendery, the only reporter who ran with the quote, reported it as a "diss." When I asked her what happened after, Bendery emphasized just how curt Pelosi came across. "Pelosi basically interrupted for a second and was like, oh no, don't even tie me to that a**wipe," said Bendery.

The point is that the attack is designed to be so far-ranging that any Democrat who stops short of Rejecting and Denouncing a Democrat—no matter how minor the Democrat—is reflecting the essential hypocrisy of blah blah blah.

How did we get here? So, in the spring of 2012, Democrats attempted to capitalize on their strong poll leads with women, and on GOP outrage over the HHS's new contraception mandate, by decrying a "a war on women." First, the Romney campaign responded by insisting "the real war on women" was an Obama economic policy that made their lives harder. (This was in line with the campaign's theory of making everything about the economy.) At the height of War on Women I, I was in a Wilmington, Del., factory watching Romney expound this theory, as rows of women (including Christine O'Donnell) nodded behind him.

Right after this, CNN contributor and Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen made a jibe at Ann Romney, saying she'd "never worked a day in her life." The Romney campaign pivoted, insisting that Rosen had declared "war on moms." The conventional wisdom, which I endorsed in my worst judgment all year, was that by complicating "the war on women narrative," Romney had ended it.

In the long run, that was wrong, but in the short run, this umbrage-based counterattack worked much better than the economy-based counterattack. And Republicans internalized the lesson. They had a major branding problem this summer, as state legislatures in Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin, and North Carolina rammed through new restrictions on abortion. Parts of these laws, like bans on abortions after 20 weeks, were popular. But the parts that closed down abortion clinics and added other restrictions were unpopular. It turned out that when you elected legislators who think like Todd Akin but don't gaffe, they pass abortion bans anyway.

Initially, the GOP resurrected the first Romney line. "Women have had a difficult time finding work, and juggling multiple jobs and their personal lives with Democrats controlling the economy and the government for the last five years," said NRSC spokeswoman Brook Hougesen when Politico asked her about the new "war on women" line. It turned out that the line that failed in 2012 was failing in 2013. Thus: the "war on actual women," and the attempt to change the subject so the political press found an equivilence between actual laws passed by Republicans and sleazy behavior by Democrats.

The Democrats are baffled. "Attacking Bill Clinton?!" DSCC communications director Matt Canter snarked to me this week. "Even Romney was smart enough not to do that." But I think they realize that befuddling the press corps with a new "fight" narrative is pretty easy, with hard work. I'm just opting out now, because I saw how it failed last time.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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